Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart climb out of their art-house cave, to find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week, Fox's latest prehistoric animation, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, has them drilling for oil in the suburbs.
Gee Henry, it’s hard to make much of this unambitious 3D kids’ movie, especially after the surprising depth of character and heights of fancy reached in Up. Its confusing conception of prehistory and misleading title reminded me of Year One’s overlapping Old Testament and caveman stories. Carlos Saldanha's Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs — as anyone who was a dino-buff as a kid (like the Times’ A.O. Scott) will have noticed — is premised upon the impossible encounter between dinosaurs and their post-extinction substitutes, the Ice Age franchise’s cast of wooly mammoths (Ellie and Manny, voiced by Queen Latifah and Ray Romano), a saber-toothed tiger (Diego, voiced by Dennis Leary) and other snow-dwellers (most notably the sloth Sid, voiced by John Leguizamo).
“Twilight of the Dinosaurs” would be a more accurate title, since the T-Rexes, Ankylosaurus (always my favorite dinosaur), Stegosauruses and other giant reptiles our mammal heroes encounter have survived the extinction of their kind in a subterranean valley. They’re doomed — living on borrowed time like a character in the Final Destination franchise — and, predictably, probably about as dumb as actual dinosaurs. This affords our surface-dwelling heroes a great deal of condescending agency, and beyond its intriguing sexual politics Ice Age 3’s most suspect element may be its specist and determinist version of history, which basically comes down to: “Mammals are the future, so let’s just leave the dinosaurs to die off quietly in their giant grave.” Could this be a cathartic fantasy for developed world audiences? The plot subtly endorses the notion that those living on top have no responsibility towards the less fortunate, except maybe that of not disrupting their downward spiral. Or perhaps writers Michael Berg, Peter Ackerman and Yoni Brenner are getting at some harmonious, homogenous melting pot — which is why Sid’s relationship with the domineering (castrating?) female T-Rex whose eggs he steals can’t last. Are this movie’s multi-species families and herds really an unfunny, improbably white middle-class version of the far less harmonious global village?
So what do you think, Ben: worst episode of Everybody Loves Raymond ever? (Which is really saying something!) Except unlike that show, the family here, as you note, is made up of more than just suburban whites; but Ice Age 3’s multiculturalism seems shallow, an ostensible celebration of diversity, classic pseudo-liberalism, meant to secrete its embedded conservatism. Yeah, yeah, its “herd” is made up of many different types of animals, and its main married couple is multiracial. (Romano and Latifah would be the best real life celebrity couple.) I suppose it’s nice that Ice Age 3 aims to teach children to accept friends and makeshift-family members of all shapes, sizes and species—even Sid the Sloth, who, mid-film, adopts a few baby dinosaurs, and takes to referring to himself as a “she,” as their “mommy”. Even pan-sexuals can be a part of our families.
But they can’t raise their own families. The film’s point seems to be that it takes a mommy and daddy to raise properly a baby, as the Latifah-Romanos are pitched as the movie’s true parental figures; Sid, as the failure. Or at least that it takes a dinosaur mommy to raise dinosaur babies. (But not necessarily a dinosaur daddy, as the dino-mommy spends the film on the run from the presumable father: a savage, a batterer.) So, is Sid meant to represent the adoptive parent? The homosexual? The single father? Or what?
But that’s all small potatoes when it comes to Ice Age’s real agenda: Drill, baby, drill! As you pointed out, the plot is Year One-level nonsensical; as Ryan Stewart (no relation) writes in Slant, “they refer to [the Ice Age] like it's a place, not an epoch.” I described the story to a friend, who immediately noted that it’s just ANWR propaganda. What was hiding beneath the ice millions of years ago? Dinosaurs. What do dinosaurs turn into? Oil! (This is actually a popular misconception, but that’s irrelevant here, right?) Like last week’s Transformers, this is just some more Palin 2012 folderol.
That hadn’t really occurred to me, but it jives very nicely with my impression that Ice Age 3, somehow, peddles shady laissez-faire propaganda about leaving the poor folks at the bottom where they are and living large at the top. Does it make sense to talk about class, then, in this ancient fiction with no human characters? Of course, because like that other page right out of pre-history, The Flinstones, Ice Age 3 smacks of suburban living. Early on, Manny builds a backyard playground for his and Ellie’s eagerly anticipated baby, which is subsequently destroyed by the raucous kids from next door who hop the fence. Every other surface-dwelling bit player is coupled off (in species-exclusive relationships), except Sid, who’s too dumb, and perpetual bachelor Diego — who’s totally a closeted gay bodybuilder (although his Latino name seems completely random). Maybe “Ice Age: The Dawn of Gated Communities” makes even more sense than the alternate title I suggested earlier — anything to keep those dreadful dinos out!
Whatever’s going on in this movie, it’s so mired in bad jokes and predictable 3D action sequences — like the retread of every out of control ski slope descent ever made — that the only parts I actually enjoyed involved the courting, squabbling and thankfully speechless squirrels (newlyweds, obviously) and the subterranean adventurer Buck (voiced by Simon Pegg), who was some sort of cross between Sherlock Holmes, Captain Ahab and Don Quixote. Was there anything, heaven forbid, that you actually liked about this film, Henry?
Well, it took a bit of brain racking, but I suppose I did rather like those two squirrels—our old gray standby plus a new fox lady squirrel—battling over that now iconic acorn. The pas de deux interludes, in their physicality and, as you note, total lack of dialogue, recalled Merrie Melodies, a more old-fashioned, animated brand of slapstick humor otherwise sorely missing from Ice Age 3. (Someone barfing isn’t the same.) Animation is inherently more visual than verbal—otherwise, what the hell would be the point in drawing everything?—but Dreamworks’ films have customarily been more interested in celebrity-voiced snark than in the cleverly crafted visual sequence. If only Wall-E had turned out to be an industry trendsetter rather than a mere iconoclast.
But stepping back a moment: I like your idea of the tundra as suburbs, a Levittown ideal, because it makes the dino-tropics a sort of inner city: after all, not only is that where the playground vandalizing T-Rex pups originated (they just don’t “fit in” in the ice world, do they?), but it’s full of dangerzones, chasms of death and whatnot, whereas our surface world is one of safety: no one ever dies, comes close, or even gets hurt up there until the dinosaurs turn up. Wooly Romano covers all the pointy branches with snowballs. Ice Age 3, then, is an exercise in urban tourism, teaching kids that slumming is fun and all, if only for the day. Oh, and also, that ghetto kids should stay in their own neighborhoods.
(Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox)